International football in the mid-eighties is remembered with great fondness. It had Maradona at his peak, Platini leading a great France side, a strong West Germany, and an entertaining Brazil.
In addition, the era also had Denmark with their iconic shirts, fun-loving fans, and some of the finest attacking play the world has seen.
Danish football had initially suffered due to the decision of the Danish FA not to allow professionals to play for the national team until 1971. Therefore their progress was slow and they didn’t qualify for a major competition until the 1984 European Championships in France.
There they suffered defeat in the semi-finals against Spain on penalties after impressing in qualifying and in the group stage. They took confidence from the fact they had thrashed Yugoslavia and beat a decent Belgium side though.
In qualification for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 they were behind in games away to Norway and Republic of Ireland, but ended up winning both 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. They topped the group ahead of a good Soviet Union side that was to reach the same stage as Denmark in the World Cup.
As the World Cup approached, there was talk of them being a dark horse for the competition, their forward duo of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer-Larsen was feared by many defences and considered the best in the world by some.
In their first game of the competition they edged out Scotland 1-0 before stunning the South American champions Uruguay 6-1 with what is considered one of the greatest World Cup displays of all-time from any side.
Laudrup and Elkjaer were unplayable that day, aided by a first half sending off, their fast and dynamic play left the South Americans bewildered.
Denmark faced West Germany knowing a draw would be enough for them to go through as group winners but from the start it was clear that Denmark wanted to beat their Northern European rivals.
Denmark were on top and had a goal ruled out, but by the midway point of the half Germany began to see more of the ball and create the better chances.
Just as it looked like the Danes were struggling, captain Morten Olsen surged from his own half into the penalty box to win a penalty, which Jesper Olsen coolly converted to give the Danes a lead just before the break.
Elkjaer was taken off and replaced with John Eriksen during half-time as a precaution. Eriksen wasn’t in the same class as Elkjaer but he had a decent record in front of goal and he proved to be a problem for the West German defence that afternoon.
Germany started the second half on top and they should have been level but they let two glorious chances go begging and the dazzling Danes were to punish them.
Just after the hour mark Denmark mounted an attack of their own which starts with a chipped goal kick and would be finished off by Eriksen.
What Happened Next?
Denmark won 2-0 but playmaker Frank Arnesen was needlessly sent off late on, a moment of madness he lived to regret.
They faced Spain in the second round full of confidence and after their sparkling performances in the group stage they were favourites to progress to the quarter finals.
They took a first half lead through a Jesper Olsen penalty and many expected them to wrap the game up but Spain hit back before the break when Jesper Olsen played a poor backpass allowing Emilio Butragueño to steal in and score.
Then Danish dreams soon turned to nightmares in the second half.
With thirty minutes remaining, just after Denmark went a goal down, manager Sepp Piontek decided to throw on Eriksen in the hope another striker will find them an equaliser but it ended up giving them a big problem as they totally lost control of midfield as Spain run riot with Butragueño claiming four goals in a 5-1 thrashing.
The result didn’t make much sense, Denmark had only conceded one goal in their previous three games and that was just a consolation for Uruguay in the 6-1 rout.
Spain would get the better of Denmark again in Euro ’88 and Denmark lost out to Romania in qualification for Italia ’90. Denmark did famously win the European Championships in Sweden after having originally not qualified in 1992 though and it remains their finest moment.
Eriksen scored goals in the Swiss league after this World Cup before retiring. His retirement was a very sad affair as he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He saw out his final days in a Swiss nursing home and sadly passed away in 2002 at just 44 years of age.
Denmark 6 – 1 Uruguay – Full Match